Sahel Desertification & Migration of Sahelians

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Sahel Desertification

The people of the Sahel region have had a long history of migration as a livelihood diversification strategy to combat the Sahelian climate. Low income countries such as Mali and Burkina Faso are engaged in a losing battle against the relentless episodes of recurrent droughts and furry of rainfalls that has plagued the Sahel for the last-half century. Since the drought of 1969-73, farmers desperately took part in a migration that would allow them to flee the descending condition of the land, also known as the Sahel Desertification (Albergel, Valentin, 1990).

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Burkina Faso for instance relies on “rain-fed-agriculture”. Agriculture such as cereals (sorghum, millet, maize, rice), legumes, cash crops such as cotton exports, make their economies and food security highly vulnerable to changes in temperature and rainfall (Kurukulasuriya P & Mendelsohn R, 2006). The most recent drought of 2012 has already affected 19 million people in the region and a projected 135 million people worldwide a risk of being displaced from desertification, land degradation, and drought (Almeria, 2006). Through, analyzing the term desertification, discussing the Sahel agriculture and addressing its effects on population, will allow us to identify possible solutions and expand our knowledge to combat the growing epidemic of desertification.

The term desertification refers to the process by which fertile land becomes a desert through environmental events. Influenced by Andre Aubervielle, the adopted definition by the UN of desertification is “a land degradation in arid, semi-arid (ie, receiving less than 500nm of rain per year on average) and dry sub-humid areas resulting from various factors including climate variation and human activities”. UNEP on the other hand analyses desertification as “the presence or absence of particular kinds of soil and/or vegetation were used to infer the existence of a ‘desertification threat’. The ‘threat’ mentioned by UNEP occurred to Sahel in the drought of 1968-72 killing approximately 100,000 people due to malnutrition and other drought-related causes (Washington post, ND). Reportedly, a million-people starved, 40% to 50% of the population of domestic stock perished and millions of people took refuge in camps and urban areas and became dependent on external food aid (Graetz, 1991).

Major droughts of similar severity also occurred, for example, from 1910 to 1915. Given that this is therefore a recurrent event problem, a common characteristic in Sahel is the immense variability of rain fall. In other words, the frequency of droughts is higher and may be more sever. For this reason, farmers who rely on “rain-fed-agriculture” as mentioned earlier, develop strategies to cope with the effects of drought.Farmers were required to be creative as they would stagger their planting dates, planting seeds at a time, so that in the event of a short-term water shortage at least a portion of the crop would survive (Marxism, 1983). Around 30% of soil are suitable for crop production in Burkina Faso. However, only one third is actually cultivated per year (Kurukulasuriya P & Mendelsohn R, 2006).

The main crops are as follows; legumes and tubers, cash crops, vegetables and fruit. In the most recent drought of 2012 Burkina Faso was considered one of the most affected, which inflicted a 20 percent loss in cereal production from previous years due to droughts and environmental degradation (FAO, 2012). Not to mention, declining national harvests could raise world market prices leading to long term food security. For instance, there has already been an increase of cereal prices up to 104 percent (Oxfam, 2012). With the degradation of usable land and the increase in price for goods, migration has been the go to primary survival strategy. Since 1950, the Total Sahelian population has increased fourfold growing at a 2.7 percent rate and is expected to double in 2030 (Ozer and Al. 2005). The Population increase is most evident in the southern regions concentrated in the cities.

Migrants move southward from the north, where naturally erosive soil are further degraded by longer dry season, driving farmers to fertile south (UNCCD, NDF). A tremendous pressure has been added on land resources and production due to the migration trends. As a result of migration trends farmers have had to expand their farmland despite declining soil fertility and increasing weather vagaries. In part of migration, there had been increase regarding the rate at which forest change to cropland at 96 percent which has increased alongside population density from 17 people per square km in 1986 to 30 people per square km in 2006 (Sangli. G, 2011). On the other hand, we have cattle who’s population have doubled from 1997 to 2008. With the increase, we now have a disequilibrium between the number of livestock and available resources (Breusers, Nederlof, Van Rheenen, 1998).

Unfortunately, the situation is not getting any better as a study by (Lamprey in 1988) suggest that the deserts southern boundary has shifted south by an average of about 90-100km in the last 17 years. In conclusion, through defining desertification we learn its devastating effects on our lively hood i.e sickness and death. It is through understanding its effects that allow farmers of the past and present to adapt and construct innovative solutions to combat the situation such as migration. However, we later come to a dilemma that migration is not a permanent solution as it too possesses a number of faults like receding forests and depletion of resources just to name a few. Until we discuss the number of causes that lead to desertification, only then will we be able to conceive positive and permanent solutions.

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